By: Siphokazi Magadla*
I was surprised when my brother chose to study Politics at university. I was even more surprised that he chose to study it at the university that I teach in. Unlike me, a person who is forever animated by national and global events, my brother channels his emotions mostly to his immediate environment. It always seemed to puzzle him that I would get so worked up by the utterances of our colourful president in South Africa or a stranger’s opinion piece in a Sunday paper. Being a spectator and watching him transition from high school to university life has been one of the things that have been at the centre of my 2012 experience and hence I choose to highlight our relationship in this end of the year reflection.
At the start of the year I tried to be as honest as possible with him about the different life that he was about to embark on. I told him that it took me six months to feel comfortable at university. For one, unlike high school where you have about 40 to 45 classmates, at university, classes compose of hundreds of students. These large numbers can make the learning environment very impersonal. In addition, more than often other students in the lectures and tutorials always seem to be smarter and socially more popular, more beautiful and all around more of what you don’t have. I told him ‘All you can do is to not let it overwhelm you, adapt at your own pace and eventually you will find your voice’. He accepted the advice although maybe he thought I was taking things too seriously especially because orientation week seemed to be full of partying and the good life that usually characterises many anecdotes about university life.
When the real business of taking class started it was very difficult as a sister to watch him go through the very overwhelming experience I had warned him about. He felt that his classmates did not take him seriously; they laughed when he spoke, this ‘Rhodes’ life and ‘Rhodes things’ as he would say, seemed to delegitimize all that he knew. Back home in the township where we live he is a popular guy and I’m simply known as “Magesh’s sister”.
He read less, we talked less, he went out more and my encouragements for him to focus turned into angry verbal exchanges. I would remind him how lucky he was to be here and that we were all sacrificing a lot for him to be here. At that time I did not think how heavy that would have been. When I was an undergraduate I was aware of the sacrifices that came with attending a good university, so failure was not an option. I lived in the library, I asked for help and clearly if I could do that, why couldn’t he?
I was wrong. I was wrong to expect that our journeys would be the same. When he looked at me he did not really see encouragement but fear. Fear of what his failure would mean for our family. It is undeniably a terrible weight for anyone to carry. A male friend who I asked to mentor my brother was quick to warn me that no one wants to be perceived as a problem!
It was only when I let go and gave him his space that interesting things started happening. My detached brother started referring to some of his friends as “comrades” and “leadership”, not just his “niggers”. Then his room which had been very minimalist in décor was suddenly pasted with pictures of Biko, Gandhi, King Jr, across Drake and Rick Ross. He devoured my copy of Cornel West’s memoir calling West “le master” (the main man). On a particular Thursday while I was doing my research work at home I was surprised to see that he was in his room reading a pocket book history of UmKhonto WeSizwe by Janet Cherry. He was so engrossed in the book he never came for breakfast or lunch. After finishing exams, he packed Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Fareed Zakaria’s Post-American World to read over the holidays. I had to stop him from taking the copies of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and West’s Race Matters because I need to use them.
I must also say that teaching him and more than 200 of his classmates although nerve wrecking provided an interesting view from which to engage the class. I hoped that I would prove to be a good teacher so that he would not be embarrassed to tell his friends that the person pacing up and down the lecture hall was his sister! Beyond the superficialities, his presence allowed me to be able to discern when the lecture had gone well, if the concepts were clear or if I needed to explain further.
At a personal level it was good to have my brother see what I do since I often struggle to explain to folks back home what it means to teach at university. The memory is for both of us to share, it is something I cherish and helps me feel understood.
His personal and academic challenges have reminded me that sadly in terms of institutional culture, my university, a former white university, has not transformed that much. The alienation and delegitimization that I felt as a first year student in 2004 coming from a working class background was mirrored in my brother’s struggles in 2012. His personal journey as an unlikely politics student has been a lesson to me that many people stumble upon their destiny in interesting and unexpected ways. Like many of my friends I was the first person in my family to get a university degree. That my brother has just finished his first year while our youngest brother is entering university next year means that going to university is no longer an exception but is gradually becoming a norm for black families, despite the challenges.
*Siphokazi Magadla is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum Contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.